Part of our Philosophy


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Aztec thought As a philosophy

Contemporary Anglo-American and European academic philosophers routinely distinguish having a philosophy, in the sense of holding an implicit worldview, ideology, or “cosmovisión,” from doing philosophy, in the sense of self-consciously and critically reflecting upon and speculating about the nature, structure, and constitution of reality, the nature of truth, the nature of right and wrong, the possibility of human knowledge, the meaning of life, and so on. They contend that while all cultures have a philosophy, not all cultures contain individuals who think philosophically and thus do philosophy. The former emerges haphazardly and un-self-consciously without systematic or sustained critical reflection. In contrast, doing philosophy – that is, philosophy properly speaking – is the sole invention and possession of Western culture beginning with Socratics and the Sophists. As though channeling sixteenth-century European “discoverers,” these modern-day schoolmen argue that non-Western peoples are in effect unreasoning, philosophical sleepwalkers. This view is crisply articulated by prominent Western philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, who claimed that the expression of Western philosophy is tautologous while the expression non- Western philosophy is oxymoronic; Emmanuel Levinas, who once remarked, “I always say – but in private – that the Greeks and the Bible are all that is serious in humanity. Everything else is dancing”; and Richard Rorty who claimed that looking for philosophy outside of the West is “pointless” since philosophy is unique to Western culture. According to Robert Bernasconi, “Western philosophy traps [non-Western philosophy] in a double bind: either [non-Western philosophy] is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears, or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt.” Either way, Western philosophers think and speak for all humanity. This view is not confined to academic philosophers, of course. Western anthropologists, religionists, and historians of ideas also commonly contend that while non-Western peoples are capable of religious and mythopoeic thought, they are clearly incapable of philosophical thought.

In his groundbreaking 1956 book, La filosofía náhuatl, Miguel León-Portilla argued that Nahua culture included individuals who were every bit as philosophical as Socrates and the Sophists. Nezahualcoyotl, Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui, Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin and other Nahuas reflected self-consciously, critically, and generally upon the nature of existence, truth, knowledge, and the reigning mythical-religious views of their day. By attacking the dominant orthodoxy among Western academic philosophers and their epigones regarding the West’s monopoly on philosophical activity, León-Portilla brought upon himself a firestorm of calumny and condemnation. In The Aztec Image in Western ThoughtBenjamin Keen, for example, scathingly upbraids León-Portilla for comparing “the highest thought achieved by an Upper Stone Age people” with the “climactic intellectual achievements” of the ancient Greeks. Presumably, under pressure from its North American publisher, the book’s 1963 English title, Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind, backed away from this controversy and steered the book toward university courses in anthropology and history. Judging from the English title, León-Portilla’s book was no longer a study of Aztec philosophy. It was now conceived more appropriately as a study of Aztec “thought.” Fortunately, however, the text itself remained steadfast in its commitment to the heterodoxy that the Aztecs did philosophy.

Why does this issue generate so much heat? Why does it matter who is, and who is not, deemed a philosopher? As countless scholars have argued, philosophy plays a vital role in the modern West’s conception of itself and of the non-Western Other. What is at stake here is nothing less than the modern West’s self-image as rational, self-conscious, civilized, cultured, human, disciplined, modern, and masculine in contrast with the non-West as irrational, appetitive, emotional, instinctive, uncivilized, savage, primitive, nonhuman, undisciplined, backward, feminine, and closer to nature. Philosophy, “the queen of the sciences,” as Aristotle so marvelously characterized it, represents the pinnacle of humanity’s intellectual and rational achievement. For the European Enlightenment, philosophy represents the intellect’s emancipation from the fantasies of myth and the shackles of religious dogma. Western culture’s philosophy versus nonphilosophy binary is thus a social-historical tool constructed to celebrate and legitimize the West and its imperial hegemony while at the same time denigrating “the Rest” and legitimizing its heteronomy.

The reaction to León-Portilla together with the West’s attitude toward the philosophical capabilities of non-Western peoples is all the more puzzling in light of the fact that Western academic philosophers are unable to agree among themselves upon a suitable definition of philosophy. All they seem to be able to agree upon is that non-Western thinkers do not (cannot) do it! Even self- styled, antiphilosophical establishment rebels such a Richard Rorty who maintain that philosophy has no essence nevertheless join the chauvinistic chorus denying membership in Club Philosophy to non-Western thinkers. Upon inspection, however, philosophy turns out to be infuriatingly difficult, if not impossible, to define. Indeed, defining philosophy is itself a philosophical issue: the sort Western philosophers call a “metaphilosophical problem.” Is philosophy to be defined in terms of its aims, subject matter, origin, or method? Is philosophy even the sort of thing that even admits of definition? How do we decide? And more to the point, who gets to decide? Whose definitions and answers count, and why? Whose standards govern the discussion? Who is included and who is excluded from the discussion, and on what grounds? Equally crucially, who poses and entertains as worthwhile questions such as, Are non-Western people philosophical? And why do they pose them? In short, it is far from clear that this issue can be resolved in a non-ethnocentric and noncircular way. This is obviously not the place to resolve this issue. However, it would seem that those traditionally excluded from Club Philosophy may pursue either of two strategies. They may seek admission into the club by arguing that what they do sufficiently resembles what bona fide club members do. León-Portilla pursues this strategy on behalf of the Aztecs. Or they may reject the philosophy versus nonphilosophy binary – along with the entire debate – as a now discredited, self-serving relic of Western colonialism (racism, modernism, paternalism, etc.), not worry about whether or not what they do qualifies as “real” philosophy, and continue doing what they have always been doing.

I reject the rational-civilized-masculine versus irrational-savage-feminine binary yet also refuse to cede philosophical inquiry to the West. Like León- Portilla, I maintain the Aztecs not only had a philosophy but also did philosophy. They engaged in self-consciously reflective and critical endeavors that satisfy the definition of philosophy advanced by North American philosopher Wilfred Sellars: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Their endeavors likewise satisfy William James’ definition of philosophy as “the unusual stubborn attempt to think clearly.” Indigenous North American philosophers Thurman Lee Hester Jr. and Dennis McPherson claim the thought systems of indigenous North American peoples satisfy the basic definition of philosophy lying at the roots of the Euro-American tradition: “a thoughtful interaction with the world.” Every culture has people who give themselves to reflecting upon the world in this manner. “These are their philosophers.” Granted, the Aztecs’ philosophical journey took a different form and took them to a different set of answers. Yet this is irrelevant. As John Dewey once noted, “I think it shows a remarkable deadness of imagination to suppose that philosophy [must] revolve within the scope of the problems and systems that two thousand years of European history have bequeathed to us.” Aztec and European philosophies represent two alternative philosophical orientations and trajectories rooted in two alternative forms of life or ways of being human in the world. Aztec philosophy need not ape European philosophy in order to count as “real” philosophy. There is no law of reason, though, or culture requiring that all peoples think alike or follow the same path of philosophical development.

It is also sometimes argued that the Aztecs’ religiosity precluded their thinking philosophically. Philosophy, as the West’s self-narrative often goes, begins where religion ends. This view assumes, however, that religion and philosophy are mutually exclusive. The Aztecs’ religiosity no more precluded their doing philosophy than did the religiosity of St. Augustine, Maimonides, St. Aquinas, Ockham, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, or Whitehead (to name only a few bona fide philosophers by Western lights). What’s more, the possibility that Aztec metaphysical speculation operated within the bounds of Aztec religion and served as its “handmaiden” (to borrow Locke’s telling phrase) no more disqualifies it as “real” philosophy than does the fact that the lion’s share of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy operates within the bounds of science and serves as its “handmaiden” disqualifies it as “real” philosophy. Finally, the cogency of the interpretation of Aztec metaphysics advanced here does not hinge upon one’s accepting the thesis that the Aztecs did philosophy. Regardless of one’s view on this matter, it is undeniable that the Aztecs had a metaphysics, that is, a systematic and coherent understanding of how things in the broadest possible sense hang together.

University Press of Colorado